Last month, the Newspaper Guild called for the Huffington Post's (AOL) unpaid bloggers to go on strike. In the Los Angeles Times last week, Michael Walker brought up the analogy of comedians who forced comedy clubs in the late 1970s to start paying the acts that brought in the money.
Jeff Bercovici at Forbes.com thought the analogy was off. Bloggers don't bring in the readers, he argues, and so are nothing more than a potentially amusing side show. I agree with Bercovici that the bloggers won't make a boycott stick, but disagree that they aren't responsible for the site's success. They are, only in a subtle way that even some people at HuffPo miss: SEO juice.
Bercovici is right that the bloggers don't have the leverage that such people as David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Robin Williams had before they were big names and were still performing at, and picketing in front of, the clubs. Without them, the clubs didn't pull in audiences.
HuffPo blogs: A ghost town that still draws visitors
No one visits the vast majority of the HuffPo blogs. If they did, with 6,000 or more bloggers, the site's pageviews would be far higher than they are now, and HuffPo wouldn't be so skittish about giving the blog volunteers pageview data for their work. But the truth would only discourage them and crack HuffPo's reputation as a place to get your views read. Outside of a small handful, the bloggers could likely get as much attention through diligence and running their own blogs.
But so long as people believe that they'll get an audience, whether they do or not, Arianna Huffington will continue to have a long list of people willing to blog for free. That's why the bloggers won't be successful in seeking a boycott.
However, assuming that the collective blog Borg offers no value to HuffPo is a mistake that many in the media make because they don't pay much attention to the mechanics of search engine optimization. That's the real answer to the value of the blogs. Search engines like sites that regularly post new information. The more "quality" info a site can post, the more attention the search engines pay. It's one reason that Demand Media (DMD) keeps its eHow site high in many search listings.
To HuffPo, the blogs represent not readers, but SEO bait. The unpaid bloggers aren't getting read, but they are making the site look oh-so-pretty to the wandering spiders of Google (GOOG) and Microsoft (MSFT) Bing. And that helps get its news and big name blogger posts to the top of search lists and on the browsers of tens of millions of readers.